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China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange — Reuters

August 20th, 2014 No comments

Reuters

China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange

SHANGHAI August 22 Thu Aug 21, 2014 5:10pm EDT

(Reuters) – Chinese brokerages will start making markets next week on China’s New Third Board, its leading over-the-counter (OTC) exchange but one long derided as a dead-end market populated by small little-known, opaquely managed firms.

The move has revitalized interest and trading volumes have exploded, but analysts warn of significant risk.

Most of the 66 Chinese brokerages so far approved to make markets – a business that requires deep cash reserves and sophisticated risk management skills – have little experience.

Market makers quote both a buy and sell price and guarantee share availability by holding shares themselves in inventory, which requires careful real-time management.

For brokerages it means extra profits, while China’s policymakers hope the liberalization will boost liquidity in an exchange that can provide capital for small innovative firms, needed for the next phase of economic expansion.

But, analysts fear that brokerages inexperience coupled with inadequate disclosure by listed companies could led to trouble for an exchange already saddled with image problems.

“Like all OTC markets – including… America’s Bulletin Board and Pink Sheets – China’s Third Board suffers from inherent fundamental flaws,” said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive at China First Capital.

“Liquidity and valuations are persistently low and disclosure is spotty. If it was designed to be a solution to the problem of erratic mainstream IPO policy and approvals on China’s main Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges, the Third Board must be judged a major disappointment.”

Regardless of critics, trading volumes on the exchange soared almost 700 percent in May when Chinese media first reported the advent of market-makers, ChinaScope Financial data shows. Foreign investors are unable to trade on the exchange.

A Reuters analysis of daily data from the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ), which runs the New Third Board, shows that August volumes are set to surpass May’s record. Transactions worth 1.16 billion yuan ($188.63 million), as of Aug. 19, were nearly double July’s total, while the volume of shares traded has more than tripled month-on-month.

SMALL CAP CELEBRATION

Smaller private companies in China are the country’s biggest aggregate employers and generators of GDP, but they have difficulty getting bank loans and even more difficulty getting regulatory approval to list on major markets or issue bonds.

However, while dozens of local governments have created OTC markets to help match companies with investors, the lack of market makers and lack of a clear upgrade path to major exchanges has caused most firms and investors to steer clear.

But that may be about to change.

“The expectation is that the Third Board can be an entree onto the growth enterprise board for select small companies,” said Brian Ingram, chief investment manager at Russell Ping An Investment Management.

“If the board does serve that purpose, it’s likely to see pretty rapid growth, and the catalyst for that growth is the fact that regulators are allowing brokerage houses to serve as market makers.”

Brokerages hope it will boost in profits, something they need badly having struggled since 2010 as investors steadily switched out of Chinese stocks, among the world’s worst performers, in favor of housing and high-yielding wealth management products.

SMALL-CAP FEEDING FRENZY

Chinese investors enthusiastically trade small, volatile tickers listed on Shenzhen’s ChiNext growth board, so some predict a revitalized OTC board will attract similar speculative interest, further supporting liquidity.

However, sustained interest from both investors and companies depends on whether regulators formally commit to allowing companies on the New Third Board upgrade to ChiNext.

“We’re now considering listing on the New Third Board, but we are waiting for policy confirmation that we can upgrade to ChiNext,” said Cui Lijun, deputy general manager at robotics firm LEN in Shenzhen.

Similar experiments have disappointed in the past, such as the hard-currency-denominated “B-share” board. Speculators bought B-shares hoping they would ultimately be upgraded to yuan-denominated A-shares, but in the end only a few companies were allowed to transfer, leaving the rest stranded.

CALLS FOR CAUTION

The chequered history of OTC markets in China and abroad, especially with regards to disclosure standards, also has many calling for caution.

In the late 2000s, small Chinese companies began listing on American OTC boards, and some managed to upgrade to major exchanges such as NASDAQ. But many were subsequently found to be riddled with accounting irregularities, causing a swathe of delistings.

Given this history, it is unclear whether regulators want to expand the aggregate OTC market or consolidate it.

Out of all of China’s 26 OTC markets, the New Third Board is the only one that companies from anywhere in China can list on, and it will now be the only one where making markets will be allowed.

Some analysts said that this means the government may be elevating the Third Board, so it can then kill off the rest.

But Zhang Yunfeng, the head of Shanghai’s rival OTC market, said in an interview published in China’s Securities Times on Wednesday that he doesn’t feel threatened.

“I’m not optimistic about the market making institution … if there’s not enough base liquidity, market making will have a hard time enabling market performance.”

www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/21/us-china-markets-otc-idUSKBN0GL26920140821

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China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

January 19th, 2014 No comments

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

The “OTCBB-ization” of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange

March 6th, 2012 No comments

From the world’s leading IPO stock market to a grubby financial backwater with the sordid practices of America’s notorious OTCBB. Is this what’s to become of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange ?

I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (“HKSE”) may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right.  Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.

During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE’s growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come. With the US, Europe and Japan all in the economic and capital market doldrums, the investment banking flotilla came sailing into Hong Kong. Champagne corks popped. High-end Hong Kong property prices, already crazily out of synch with local buying power,  climbed still higher.

The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It’s little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.

In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this “offshore structure” and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.

Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called “Variable Interest Entity”, or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.

Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy’s Prada, Russia’s Rusal or Mongolia’s Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don’t speak Russian or Mongolian.

So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a “coming boom” of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.

The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren’t showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year’s earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year’s net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.

In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, “don’t look at today’s reality, focus instead at yesterday’s outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow’s”.

This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.

In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company’s HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.

There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.

“No one has a crystal ball”, is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying “I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to earn a living”. He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.

The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.

My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won’t be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it’ll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn’t big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.

Cease and Desist on Delist-Relist — Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

August 24th, 2011 1 comment

WSJ1

It’s only a moderate exaggeration to say that everything I’ve learned of value and enduring truth about politics and economics over the last 25 years came from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. For just as long, the one writing goal I’ve held onto was having an op-ed published there. Today’s the day.

Cease and Desist on Delist-Relist” is running in today’s Asian edition. I’m delighted. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the Journal’s Joe Sternberg who encouraged me to submit the piece, and then did masterful work shaping and reworking the text from earlier blog posts. 

I’ve known my fair share of editors. When I was at Forbes Magazine many years ago, I had the good fortune to have a fair percentage of my stories edited directly the then Editor-in-Chief, Jim Michaels, who richly deserves the reputation as one of the finest ever in business journalism. He was a maestro. Other Forbes editors? Often klutzes. Joe’s editing work is of Michaels quality. I have no higher standard, or stouter praise.

The full text as published by the Journal is copied below. For anyone who’d like to read the earlier draft, about 15% longer than this version, you can click here. 

  
  
 

 

  • The Wall Street Journal

 

Foreign private-equity firms have a history of running into trouble in China. Generally consigned to buying minority stakes instead of the traditional buy-out-and-turn-around model they mastered back home, several big-name firms have become collateral damage in various corporate fraud sagas. Yet now some PE investors look set to jump into what could be the worst China investment move of all: the “delist-relist” deal.

The theory is simple. Hundreds of Chinese companies have gained listings in the U.S. via reverse takeovers, injecting all of their assets into a dormant shell company with shares traded on NASDAQ, AMEX or, more commonly, over-the-counter. Only then do the Chinese firms discover the enormous compliance costs associated with being listed in America, not to mention the low valuations for U.S.-traded shares relative to what a Chinese company could pull from equity markets back in China.

Enter PE investors to buy out the American shareholders, delist in the U.S., and then cash out by relisting in China. Several such deals have already been hatched, including one by Bain Capital to spend $100 million taking private NASDAQ-listed China Fire & Security Group; two deals orchestrated by Hong Kong-based Abax Capital, the planned buyouts of NASDAQ-listed Harbin Electric and Fushi Copperweld for more than $700 million; and Fortress Group’s financing to take Funtalk Holdings’ private. Conversations with market participants suggest quite a few other PE firms are now actively looking at such transactions.

Yet while the superficial appeal is clear, the risks are enormous and unmanageable, and have the potential to mortally wound any PE firm that tries.

The first problem relates to the aspect that most excites PE firms about delist-relist deals: the low share price in the U.S. The assumption generally is that this is simply bad luck. Many Chinese companies ended up trading over-the-counter or at low valuations on NASDAQ as a result of their reverse mergers. Share prices stay depressed, the theory goes, because American investors don’t understand the company’s business or trust its accounting.

That may be too generous to the Chinese executives. Those managers were foolish to have done a reverse merger in the first place. One can infer the boss has little knowledge of capital markets and took few sensible precautions before pulling the trigger on the backdoor listing that has probably cost the firm at least $1 million in fees to complete and ongoing regulatory compliance. An “undervalued asset” in the control of someone misguided enough to go public this way may not be undervalued after all.

Next, there are the complexities of taking a company private. For instance, class-action lawsuits have become fairly common in any kind of merger or acquisition deal in the U.S., with minority shareholders often disputing the valuation. With Chinese companies, distance, differences in accounting rules, and unusual corporate structures are likely to lead to bigger disputes over what a company is actually worth.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, it is far from certain that these Chinese companies, once taken private, will be able to relist in China. Any proposed initial offering in China must gain the approval of the China Securities Regulatory Commission. There is a low chance of success. No one knows the exact numbers, but from my own conversations with Chinese regulators, it seems likely that only 10%-15% of the more than 150 companies per month that applied to list last year gained listings. Companies whose U.S. listings failed will almost certainly suffer a serious stigma in the CSRC’s eyes. PE firms could end up owning firms that are delisted in the U.S. and unlistable in China.

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its limited partners for breach of fiduciary duty. Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to raise money. In other words, PE firms that do delist-relist deals may be taking an existential risk.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? Because they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the U.S. stock market, and so has a lot of disclosure materials available. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog requiring extensive due diligence. Delist-relist seems like an easy way in, especially for smaller, less experienced PE firms.

By some counts, America’s largest export to China is now trash and scrap for recycling. These delist-relist deals have a similar underlying logic, that PE firms can turn American muck into brass in China. But that’s a big and very dangerous gamble. The only people certain to do well out of these deals are U.S. investors who sell out now at a small premium in the “take private” part of the deal.

Mr. Fuhrman is chairman and chief executive of China First Capital. This column is adapted from a report recently published by CFC.

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Private Equity in China, CFC’s New Research Report

August 14th, 2011 No comments

 

The private equity industry in China continues on its remarkable trajectory: faster, bigger, stronger, richer. CFC’s latest research report has just been published, titled “Private Equity in China 2011-2012: Positive Trends & Growing Challenges”. You can download a copy by clicking here.

The report looks at some of the larger forces shaping the industry, including the swift rise of Renminbi PE funds, the surging importance of M&A, and the emergence of a privileged group of PE firms with inordinate access to capital and IPO markets. The report includes some material already published here.

It’s the first English-language research report CFC has done in two years. For Chinese readers, some similar information has run in the two columns I write, for China’s leading business newspaper, the 21st Century Herald (click here “21世纪经济报道”) as well as Forbes China (click here“福布斯中文”) 

Despite all the success and the new money that is pouring in as a consequence, Chinese private equity retains its attractive fundamentals: great entrepreneurs, with large and well-established companies, short of expansion capital and a knowledgeable partner to help steer towards an IPO. Investing in Chinese private companies remains the best large-scale risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world, bar none.

Crawling Blindfold & Naked Through A Minefield

June 27th, 2011 1 comment

 

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The PE firms now considering the “delist-relist” transactions I wrote about last time (click here to read)  are jeopardizing not only their investors’ money, but the firm’s own survival.  The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its Limited Partners (“LPs”) for breach of fiduciary duty.

Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to ever raise money from LPs again. In other words, PE firms that do “delist-relist” are taking existential risk. To this old guy, that is just plain dumb.

Before making any investment, a PE firm, to fulfill its fiduciary duty, will do extensive, often forensic, due diligence. The DD acts as a kind of inoculation, protecting the PE firm in the event something later goes wrong with the investment. As long as the DD was done properly, meaning no obvious risks were ignored, then a PE firm can’t easily be attacked in court for investing in a failed deal.

With the “delist-relist” deals however, there is no way for the DD process to fully determine the scale of the largest risks, nor can the PE firm do much to hedge, manage or alleviate them. This is because the largest risks are inherent in the deal structure.

The two main ones are the risk of shareholder lawsuits and the risk that the company, after being taken private, will fail to win approval for an IPO on a different stock market. If either occur, they will drain away any potential profit. Both risks are fully outside the control of the PE firm. This makes these deals a blindfolded and naked crawl through a minefield.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? From my discussions, one reason is that they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the US stock market, and so has a lot of SEC disclosure materials available. All one needs to do is download the documents from the SEC’s Edgar website. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog – it involves getting materials, like an audit, and then making sure everything else provided by the company is genuine and accurate.

Another reason is ignorance of or indifference to the legal risks: many of the PE firms I’ve talked to that are considering these “delist-relist” deals have little direct experience operating in the US capital markets. Instead, the firm’s focus on what they perceive to be the “undervaluation” of the Chinese companies quoted in the US. One PE guy I know described the Chinese companies as “miss-killed”, meaning they are, to his way of thinking, basically solid businesses that are being unfairly scorned by US investors. There may well be some good ones foundering on US stock markets. But, finding them and putting the many pieces together of a highly-complex “delist-relist” deal is outside the circle of competence and experience of most PE firms active in China.

This investment approach, of looking for mispriced or distressed assets on the stock market,  is a strategy following by many portfolio managers, distress investors and hedge funds. PE firms operating in China, however, are a different breed, and raised money from their LPs, in most cases, by promising to do different sorts of deals, with longer time horizons and a focus on outstanding private companies short of growth capital. The PE firm acts as supportive rich uncle, not as a crisis counselor.

Abandoning that focus on strong private companies, to pursue these highly risky “delist-relist” deals seems not only misguided, but potentially reckless. Virtually every working day, private Chinese companies go public and earn their PE investors returns of 400% or more. There is no shortage of great private companies looking for PE in China. Just the opposite. Finding them takes more work than compiling a spreadsheet with the p/e multiples of Chinese companies traded in the US.  But, in most cases, the hard work of finding and investing in private companies is what LPs agreed to fund, and where the best risk-adjusted profits are to be made.  How will LPs respond if a PE firm does a “delist-relist” deal and then it goes sour? This, too, is a suicidal risk the PE firm is taking.

China PE Firms Do PF (Perfectly Foolhardy) “Delist-Relist” Deals

June 21st, 2011 No comments

Hands down, it is the worst investment idea in the private equity industry today: to buy all shares of a Chinese company trading in the US stock market, take it private, and then try to re-list the company in China. Several such deals have already been hatched, including one by Bain Capital that’s now in the early stages, the planned buyout of NASDAQ-quoted Harbin Electric (with PE financing provided by Abax Capital) and a takeover completed by Chinese conglomerate Fosun.

From what I can gather, quite a few other PE firms are now actively looking at similar transactions. While the superficial appeal of such deals is clear, the risks are enormous, unmanageable and have the potential to mortally would any PE firm reckless enough to try.

A bad investment idea often starts from some simple math. In this case, it’s the fact there are several hundred Chinese companies quoted in the US on the OTCBB or AMEX with stunningly low valuations, often just three to four times their earnings.  That means an investor can buy all the traded shares at a low overall price, and then, in partnership with the controlling shareholders,  move the company to a more friendly stock market, where valuations of companies of a similar size trade at 20-30 times profits.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s anything but. Start with the fact that those low valuations in the US may not only be the result of unappreciative or uncomprehending American investors. Any Chinese company foolish enough to list on the OTCBB, or do any other sort of reverse merger, is probably suffering other less obvious afflictions. One certainty:  that the boss had little knowledge of capital markets and took few sensible precautions before pulling the trigger on the backdoor listing which, among its other curses, likely cost the Chinese company at least one million dollars to complete, including subsequent listing and compliance costs.

Why would any PE firm, investing as a fiduciary, want to go in business with a boss like this? An “undervalued asset” in the control of a guy misguided enough to go public on the OTCBB may not be in any way undervalued.

Next, the complexities of taking a company private in the US. There’s no fixed price. But, it’s not a simple matter of tendering for the shares at a price high enough to induce shareholders to sell. The legal burden, and so legal costs, are fearsome. Worse, lots can – and often will – go wrong, in ways that no PE firm can predict or control. The most obvious one here is that the PE firm, along with the Chinese company, get targeted by a class action lawsuit.

These are common enough in any kind of M&A deal in the US. When the deal involves a cash-rich PE firm and a Chinese company with questionable management abilities, it becomes a high likelihood event. Contingency law-firms will be salivating. They know the PE firm has the cash to pay a rich settlement, even if the Chinese company is a total dog. Legal fees to defend a class action lawsuit can run into tens of millions of dollars. Settling costs less, but targets you for other opportunistic lawsuits that keep the legal bills piling up.

The PE firm itself ends up spending more time in court in the US than investing in China. I doubt this is the preferred career path for the partners of these PE firms. Bain Capital may be able to scare off or fight off the tort lawyers. But, other PE firms, without Bain’s experience, capital and in-house lawyers in the US, will not be so fortunate. Instead, think lambs to slaughter.

Also waiting to explode, the possibility of an SEC investigation,or maybe jail time. Will the PE firm really be able to control the Chinese company’s boss from tipping off friends, who then begin insider trading? The whole process of “bringing private” requires the PE firm to conspire together, in secret, with the boss of the US-quoted Chinese company to tender for shares later at a premium to current price. That boss, almost certainly a Chinese citizen, can work out pretty quickly that even if he breaks SEC insider trading rules, by talking up the deal before it’s publicly disclosed, there’s no risk of him being extradited to the US. In other words, lucrative crime without punishment.

The PE firm’s partners, on the other hand, are not likely immune. Some will likely be US passport or Green Card holders. Or, as likely, they have raised money from US institutions. In either case, they will have a much harder time evading the long arm of US justice. Even if they do, the publicity will likely render them  “persona non grata” in the US, and so unable to raise additional funds there.

Such LP risk – that the PE firm will be so disgraced by the transaction with the US-quoted Chinese company that they’ll be unable in the future to raise funds in the US – is both large and uncontrollable. The potential returns for doing these “delist-relist” deals  aren’t anywhere close to commensurate with that risk. Leaving aside the likelihood of expensive lawsuits or SEC action, there is a fundamental flaw in these plans.

It is far from certain that these Chinese companies, once taken private, will be able to relist in China. Without this “exit”, the economics of the deal are, at best, weak. Yes, the Chinese company can promise the PE firm to buy back their shares if there is no successful IPO. But, that will hardly compensate them for the risks and likely costs.

Any proposed domestic IPO in China must gain the approval  of China’s CSRC. Even for strong companies, without the legacy of a failed US listing, have a low percentage chance of getting approval. No one knows the exact numbers, but it’s likely last year and this, over 2,000 companies applied for a domestic IPO in China. About 10%-15% of these will succeed. The slightest taint is usually enough to convince the CSRC to reject an application. The taint on these “taken private” Chinese companies will be more than slight. If there’s no certain China IPO, then the whole economic rationale of these “take private” deals is very suspect.  The Chinese company will be then be delisted in the US, and un-listable in China. This will give new meaning to the term “financial purgatory”, privatized Chinese companies without a prayer of ever having tradeable shares again.

Plus, even if they did manage to get CSRC approval, will Chinese retail investors really stampede to buy, at a huge markup, shares of a company that US investors disparaged? I doubt it. How about Hong Kong? It’s not likely their investors will be much more keen on this shopworn US merchandise. Plus, these days, most Chinese company looking for a Hong Kong IPO needs net profits of $50mn and up. These OTCBB and reverse merger victims will rarely, if ever, be that large, even after a few years of spending PE money to expand.

Against all these very real risks, the PE firms can point to what? That valuations are much lower for these OTCBB and reverse merger companies in the US than comparables in China. True. For good reason. The China-quoted comps don’t have bosses foolish or reckless enough to waste a million bucks to do a backdoor listing in the US, and then end up with shares that barely trade, even at a pathetic valuation. Who would you rather trust your money to?

In Full Agreement

January 27th, 2011 No comments

pyramid

I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

US Government Acts to Police OTCBB IPOs and Reverse Mergers for Chinese Companies

January 5th, 2011 No comments

cover

In my experience, there is one catastrophic risk for a successful private company in China. Not inflation, or competition, or government meddling. It’s the risk of doing a bad capital markets deal in the US, particularly a reverse merger or OTCBB listing.  At last count, over 600 Chinese companies have leapt off these cliffs, and few have survived, let alone prospered. Not so, of course, the army of advisors, lawyers and auditors who often profit obscenely from arranging these transactions.

Not before time, the US Congress and SEC are both now finally investigating these transactions and the harm they have done to Chinese companies as well as stock market investors in the US. Here is a Chinese language column I wrote on this subject for Forbes China: click here to read.

As an American, I’m often angry and always embarrassed that the capital market in my homeland has been such an inhospitable place for so many good Chinese companies. In fact, my original reason for starting China First Capital over two years ago was to help a Jiangxi entrepreneur raise PE finance to expand his business, rather than doing a planned “Form 10” OTCBB.

We raised the money, and his company has since quadrupled in size. The founder is now planning an IPO in Hong Kong later this year, underwritten by the world’s preeminent global investment bank. The likely IPO valuation: at least 10 times higher than what was promised to him from that OTCBB IPO, which was to be sponsored by a “microcap” broker with a dubious record from earlier Chinese OTCBB deals.

In general, the only American companies that do OTCBB IPOs are the weakest businesses, often with no revenues or profits. When a good Chinese company has an OTCBB IPO, its choice of using that process will always cast large and ineradicable doubts in the mind of US investors. The suspicion is, any Chinese entrepreneur who chooses a reverse merger or OTCBB IPO either has flawed business judgment or plans to defraud his investors. This is why so many of the Chinese companies quoted on the OTCBB companies have microscopic p/e multiples, sometimes less than 1X current year’s earnings.

The US government is finally beginning to evaluate the damage caused by this “mincing machine” that takes Chinese SME and arranges their OTCBB or reverse mergers. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The US Securities and Exchange Commission has begun a crackdown on “reverse takeover” market for Chinese companies. Specifically, the SEC’s enforcement and corporation-finance divisions have begun a wide-scale investigation into how networks of accountants, lawyers, and bankers have helped bring scores of Chinese companies onto the U.S. stock markets.”

In addition, the US Congress is considering holding hearings. Their main goal is to protect US investors, since several Chinese companies that listed on OTCBB were later found to have fraudulent accounting.

But, if the SEC and Congress does act, the biggest beneficiaries may be Chinese companies. The US government may make it harder for Chinese companies to do OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers. If so, then these Chinese firms will need to follow a more reliable, tried-and-true path to IPO, including a domestic IPO with CSRC approval.

The advisors who promote OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers always say it is the fastest, easiest way to become a publicly-traded company. They are right. These methods are certainly fast and because of the current lack of US regulation, very easy. Indeed, there is no faster way to turn a good Chinese company into a failed publicly-traded than through an OTCBB IPO or reverse merger.


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TMK Power Industries – Anatomy of a Reverse Merger

July 4th, 2010 3 comments

lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

Two years back, I met the boss and toured the factory of a Shenzhen-based company called TMK Power Industries. They make rechargeable nickel-metal hydride, or Ni-MH,  batteries, the kind used in a lot of household appliances like electric toothbrushes and razors, portable “Dustbuster” vacuum cleaners, and portable entertainment devices like MP3 players. 

At the time, it seemed to me a good business, not great. Lithium rechargeable batteries are where most of the excitement and investment is these days. But, TMK had built up a nice little pocket of the market for the lower-priced and lower-powered NI-MH variety. 

I just read his company went public earlier this year in the US, through a reverse merger and OTCBB listing. I wish this boss lots of luck. He’ll probably need it.

Things may all work out for TMK. But, at first glance, it looks like the company has spent the last two years committing a form of slow-motion suicide. 

Back when I met the company, we had a quick discussion about how they could raise money to expand. I went through the benefits of raising private equity capital, but it mainly fell on deaf ears. The boss let me know soon after that he’d decided to list his company in the US.

He made it seem like a transaction was imminent, since I know he was in need of equity capital. Two years elapsed, but he eventually got his US listing, on the OTCBB, with a ticket symbol of DFEL. 

Here is a chart of share price performance from date of listing in February. It’s a steep fall, but not an unusual trajectory for Chinese companies listed on the OTCBB. 

 TMK share chart

From the beginning, I guessed his idea was to do some kind of reverse merger and OTCBB transaction. I knew he was working then with a financial advisor in China whose forte was arranging these OTCBB deals. I never met this advisor, but knew him by reputation. He had previously worked with a company that later became a client of mine. 

The advisor had arranged an OTCBB deal for this client whose main features were to first raise $8 million from a US OTCBB stock broker as “expansion capital” for the client. The advisor made sure there wouldn’t be much expanding, except of his own bank account and that of the stock broker that planned to put up the $8mn. 

Here’s how the deal was meant to work: the advisor would keep 17% of the capital raised as his fee, or $1.35mn.  The plan was for the broker to then rush this company through an expensive “Form 10” OTCBB listing where at least another $1.5 mn of the original $8mn money would go to pay fees to advisors, the broker,  lawyers and others. The IPO would raise no money for the company, but instead all proceeds from share sale would go to the advisor and broker. The final piece was a huge grant of warrants to this advisor and the stock broker that would leave them in control of at least 15% of the post-IPO equity. 

If the plan had gone down, it’s possible that the advisor and broker would have made 2-3 times the money they put up, in about six months. The Chinese company, meanwhile, would be left to twist in the wind after the IPO. 

Fortunately for the company, this IPO deal never took place. Instead, I helped the company raise $10mn in private equity from a first class PE firm. The company used the money to build a new factory. It has gone from strength to strength. Its profits this year will likely hit $20mn, four times the level of three years ago when I first met them. They are looking at an IPO next year at an expected market cap of over $500mn, more than 10 times higher than when I raised them PE finance in 2008. 

TMK was not quite so lucky. I’m not sure if this advisor stayed around long enough to work on the IPO. His name is not mentioned in the prospectus. It does look like his kind of deal, though. 

TMK should be ruing the day they agreed to this IPO. The shares briefly hit a high of $2.75, then fell off a cliff. They are now down below $1.50. It’s hard to say the exact price, because the shares barely trade. There is no liquidity.

As the phrase goes, the shares “trade by appointment”. This is a common feature of OTCBB listed companies. Also typical for OTCBB companies, the bid-ask spread is also very wide: $1.10 bid, and $1.30 asked. 

Looking at the company’s underlying performance, however, there is some good news. Revenues have about doubled in last two years to around $50mn. In most recent quarter, revenues rose 50% over the previous quarter. That kind of growth should be a boost to the share price. Instead, it’s been one long slide. One obvious reason: while revenues have been booming, profits have collapsed. Net margin shrunk from 13% in final quarter of 2009 to 0.2% in first quarter of 2010. 

How could this happen? The main culprit seems to be the fact that General and Administrative costs rose six-fold in the quarter from $269,000 to over $1.8mn. There’s no mention of the company hiring Jack Welch as its new CEO, at a salary of $6mn a year. So, it’s hard to fathom why G&A costs hit such a high level. I certainly wouldn’t be very pleased if I were a shareholder. 

TMK filed its first 10Q quarterly report late. That’s not just a bad signal. It’s also yet another unneeded expense. The company likely had to pay a lawyer to file the NT-10Q to the SEC to report it would not file on time. When the 10Q did finally appear, it also sucked money out of the company for lawyers and accountants. 

TMK did not have an IPO, as such. Instead, there was a private placement to raise $6.9mn, and in parallel a sale of over 6 million of the company’s shares by a variety of existing shareholders. The broker who raised the money is called Hudson Securities, an outfit I’ve never heard of. TMK paid Hudson $545,000 in fees for the private placement, and also issued to Hudson for free a packet of shares, and a large chunk of warrants.

Hudson was among the shareholders looking to sell, according to the registration statement filed when the company completed its reverse merger in February. It’s hard to know precisely, but it seems a fair guess that TMK paid out to Hudson in cash and kind over $1mn on this deal. 

The reverse merger itself, not including cost of acquiring the shell, cost another $112,000 in fees. At the end of its most recent quarter, the company had all of $289,000 in the bank. 

These reverse merger and OTCBB deals involving Chinese companies happen all the time. Over the last four years, there’s been an average of about six such deals a month.

This is the first time – and with luck it will be the only time – I actually met a company before they went through the process. Most of these reverse merger deals leave the companies worse off. Not so brokers and advisors. 

Given the dismal record of these deals, the phrase 美国反向收购 or “US reverse merger” , should be the most feared in the Chinese financial lexicon. Sadly, that’s not the case.


 

The Reverse Merger Minefield

June 8th, 2010 3 comments

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Since 2005, 380 Chinese companies have executed reverse mergers in the US. They did so, in almost all cases, as a first step towards getting listed on a major US exchange, most often the NASDAQ. Yet, as of today, according to a recent article in Dow Jones Investment Banker, only 15% of those Chinese companies successfully “uplisted” to NASDAQ. That’s a failure rate of 85%. 

That’s a rather stunning indictment of the advisers and bankers who promote, organize and profit from these transactions. The Chinese companies are left, overwhelmingly, far worse off than when they started. Their shares are stuck trading on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no liquidity,  steep annual listing and compliance fees, often pathetically low valuations,  and no hope of ever raising additional capital. 

The advisors, on the other hand, are coining it. At a guess, Chinese companies have paid out to advisors, accountants, lawyers and Investor Relations firms roughly $700 million in fees for these US reverse mergers. As a way to lower America’s balance of payments deficit with China, this one is about the most despicable. 

You would think that anyone selling a high-priced service with an 85% failure rate would have a hard time finding customers. Sadly, that isn’t the case. This is an industry that quite literally thrives on failure. The US firms specializing in reverse mergers are a constant, conspicuous presence as sponsors at corporate finance conferences around China, touting their services to Chinese companies.

I was at one this past week in Shenzhen, with over 1,000 participants, and a session on reverse mergers sponsored by one of the more prominent US brokerage houses that does these deals. The pitch is always the same: “we can get your company listed on NASDAQ”. 

I have no doubt these firms know that 85% of the reverse mergers could be classified as expensive failures, because the companies never migrate to NASDAQ.  Equally, I have no doubt they never disclose this fact to the Chinese companies they are soliciting. I know a few “laoban” (Chinese for “company boss”)  who’ve been pitched by the US reverse merger firms. They are told a reverse merger is all but a  “sure thing”. I’ve seen one US reverse merger firm’s Powerpoint presentation for Chinese clients that contained doctored numbers on performance of firms it brought public on OTCBB.  

Accurate disclosure is the single most important component of financial market regulation. Yet, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the financial firms pushing reverse mergers offer clients little to no disclosure of their own. No other IPO process has such a high rate of failure, with such a high price tag attached. 

Of course, the Chinese companies are often also culpable. They fail to do adequate due diligence on their own. Chinese bosses are often too fixated on getting a quick IPO, rather than waiting two to three years, at a minimum, to IPO in China. There’s little Chinese-language material available on the dangers of reverse mergers. These kinds of reverse mergers cannot be done on China’s own stock exchanges. Overall knowledge about the US capital markets is limited. 

These are the points cited by the reverse merger firms to justify what they’re doing. But, these justifications ring false. Just because someone wants a vacation house in Florida doesn’t make it OK to sell them swampland in the Everglades. 

The reverse mergers cost China dear. Good Chinese SME are often bled to death. That hurts China’s overall economy. China’s government probably can’t outlaw the process, since it’s subject to US, not Chinese, securities laws. But, I’d like to see the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission (中国证监会), China’s version of the SEC, publish empirical data about US reverse mergers, SPACs, OTCBB listings. 

There is not much that can be done for the 325 Chinese companies that have already completed a US reverse merger and failed to get uplisted to NASDAQ. They will continue to waste millions of dollars a year in fees just to remain listed on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no realistic prospect of ever moving to the NASDAQ market.

For these companies, the US reverse merger is the capital markets’ version of , or death by a thousand slices.

The Worst of the Worst: How One Financial Advisor Mugged Its Chinese Client

April 8th, 2010 1 comment

stamp from China First Capital blog post

One of my hobbies at work is collecting outrageous stories about the greed, crookedness and sleaze of some financial advisors working in China. Sadly, there are too many bad stories – and bad advisors – to keep an accurate, up-to-date accounting. 

Over 600 Chinese companies, of all different stripes,  are listed on the unregulated American OTCBB. The one linking factor here is that most were both badly served and robbed blind by advisors.

Many other Chinese companies pursued reverse mergers in the US and Hong Kong.Some of these deals succeeded, in the sense of a Chinese company gaining a backdoor listing this way. But, all such deals, those both consummated or contemplated, are pursued by advisors to put significant sums of cash into their own pockets. 

Talking to a friend recently in Shanghai, I heard about one such advisor that has set a new standard for unrestrained greed. This friend works at a very good PE firm, and was referred a deal by this particular advisor. I’ve grown pretty familiar with some of the usual ploys used to fleece Chinese entrepreneurs during the process of “fund-raising”. Usual methods include billing tens of thousands of dollars for all kinds of “due diligence fees”, phony “regulatory approvals” and unneeded legal work carried out by firms affiliated with the advisor.  

But, in this one deal my Shanghai friend saw, the advisor not only gorged on all these more commonplace squeezes, as well as taking a 7% fee of all cash raised, but added one that may be rather unique in both its brazenness and financial lunacy. The advisor had negotiated with the client as part of its payment that it would receive 10% of the company’s equity, after completing capital-raising. 

Let’s just contemplate the financial illiteracy at work here.  No PE investor would ever accept this, that for example, their 20% ownership immediately becomes 18% because of a highly dilutive grant to the advisor. It’s such a large disincentive to invest that the advisor might as well ask the PE firm to surrender half its future profits on the deal to put the advisor’s kids through college.

The advisor clearly was a lot more skillful at scamming the entrepreneur than in understanding how actually to raise PE money. The advisor’s total take on this deal would be at least 17% of the investor’s money, factoring in fees and value of dilutive share grant. 

By getting the entrepreneur to agree to pay him 10% of the company’s equity, along with everything else, the advisor raises the company’s pre-money valuation by an amount large enough to frighten off any decent PE investor. Result: the advisor will not succeed raising money, the entrepreneur wastes time and money, along with losing any real hope of every raising capital in the future. What PE firm would ever want to invest with an entrepreneur who was foolish enough to sign this sort of agreement with an advisor? 

This is perhaps the most malignant effect of the “work” done by these kinds of financial advisors. They create deal structures primarily to enrich themselves, at the expense of their client. By doing so, they make it difficult even for good Chinese companies to raise equity capital, now and in the future.  

I’m sure, based on experience, that some people reading this will place blame more on the entrepreneur, for freely signing contracts that pick their own pockets. No surprise, this view is held particularly strongly by people who make a living as financial advisors doing OTCBB and reverse merger deals in China.  This view is wrong, professionally and morally. 

In most aspects of business life, I put great stock in the notion of “caveat emptor”. But, this is an exception. The advisors exploit the credulity and financial naivete of Chinese entrepreneurs, using deception and half-truths to promote transactions that they know will almost certainly harm the entrepreneur’s company, but deliver a fat ill-gotten windfall to themselves. 

Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of every economy, creating jobs, wealth and enhancing choice and economic freedom. This is nowhere more true than in China. Defraud an entrepreneur and, in many cases,  you defraud society as a whole. 


 

Shenzhen’s New Growth Enterprise Market: Getting it Right, Right From the Start

September 30th, 2009 No comments

 

China First Capital blog post -- Ming Dynasty jade bowl

 

“Manage people’s expectations. Then, exceed them.” That’s not a bad rule to live by, or management principle to apply in regulating China’s fast-moving capital markets. This past week, China Regulatory Securities Commission, the nation’s stock market regulator, moved one step closer to opening trading in the new, Shenzhen-based, Growth Enterprise Market. It’s been ten years in the planning. The names were finally announced of the first companies that will list on the new market when trading begins later in October. All are private SME, and several had pre-IPO private equity funding.

The total amount of capital this first crop of IPOs will raise is well above most earlier estimates. The original stated plan was for smaller companies to list on the GEM, which, in turn, suggested the GEM market would be only a marginal contributor of growth capital for private SME. The minimum requirement was set at just $1.5mn in aggregate profits over the last two years. Even at high Chinese multiples, firms of that size would struggle to raise more than $10mn in an IPO.

But, in something of a surprise, CSRC chose larger companies to be in the first group to list. It now looks like that the ten companies will raise a total of over $400mn when their IPOs close, or an average of $40mn each. This, in turn, points to a cumulative market capitalization for this first group of around $2 billion. That bodes well for the market’s long-term future. A larger market capitalization means more liquidity and so less volatility in the share price. This will help attract more capital to the new Shenzhen market, and to subsequent future IPOs there.

Bravo, I say! The CSRC may well get the formula right, and so prove that these smaller-capitalization “growth stock markets” can work, both for companies and investors.

Elsewhere, these growth stock markets have mainly failed in their stated purpose to create an efficient platform for smaller companies to attract investors and raise capital. Germany’s Neuer Markt shut down soon after it was created. The small-cap markets in Singapore and Hong Kong have been disappointments. Small-cap companies stayed small-cap companies, which is entirely contrary to the purpose of a “growth board” like this. The granddaddy of them all, America’s OTC Bulletin Board, has become an all-purpose dumping ground for shady American firms, stock manipulators, and, sadly, several hundred once-strong Chinese SME who listed there after taking very bad advice from self-interested advisors and brokers looking to make a quick buck.

It’s anybody’s guess how many companies will list on Shenzhen’s GEM this year, or next. There is a backlog of at least 100 that have applied, and been provisionally accepted by CSRC. One thing we know: each IPO in China will get its final approval as part of an orderly process that takes into account the performance of companies already listed on GEM, and stock prices trends overall.

The Shenzhen GEM shows every sign of beginning to fill a very large, very important funding gap in China. Assuming, as I hope, that CSRC continues its preference for companies able to raise at least $30mn-$40mn in a public listing, these IPOs will channel capital to companies who would otherwise find it very hard to come by. Most of the private equity and venture firms that we work with don’t write checks that large. They generally invest around $10mn-$25mn in pre-IPO equity capital to own 20%-30% of a private Chinese SME. These investments are done at valuations of around eight times last year’s profits. So, a GEM listing could become the best source of growth capital for an SME that already has achieved some success, has profits of over $10mn-$20mn a year, but is still too small for a main board listing, in China or outside.

The public markets have two big advantages over private equity financing: they offer much higher price-earnings valuations, and give shareholders a liquid market to trade their shares. On the other hand, for Chinese SME, staging an IPO in China always has a level of deep unpredictability. The CSRC makes all the decisions about which companies can IPO and when. So, SME can wait two years or more to apply, get approval, and then put the IPO proceeds in the bank. If that SME is now growing quickly, has outsized opportunities near-to-hand with a high rate of return, but can’t finance its growth internally or with bank debt, a round of private equity will almost certainly be the best route to follow.

Done right (see my earlier blog post, on Foshan Saturday ‘s IPO) a company’s market capitalization, when it eventually completes its IPO, can be at least three times larger than it is at present. That means the laoban gets richer (nothing wrong with that), and investors are happier, too, because of the increased liquidity and stability from the higher market cap at IPO.

I’m extremely positive about the role the GEM will play in helping to build even stronger private Chinese SME. The CSRC and Chinese government have taken over ten years to plan this new stock market, and learn from the mistakes of others. All signs now are that they have done so, and the GEM will gradually create a group of publicly-traded private companies that will go on to achieve far more impressive results in the future.

Corporate Finance in China: Often A Well-Oiled Machine for Mangling Good Chinese SME

July 31st, 2009 No comments


China Chop -- From China First Capital Blog Post

 

I’m a pretty even-tempered guy, for the most part. But, those who know me, or read this blog, will by now know that I have a rather lively contempt for the financial advisors who swarm all over China, coaxing Chinese SME to pay them huge sums to arrange an IPO. Most often, the IPO happens as quickly as possible, with maximum fees flowing to the advisors, often on the shabbiest, most illiquid and unregulated of all stock markets, the American Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board (OTCBB)

So, it was with a mix of surprise and, to be honest, some annoyance that I found myself recently besieged by some of these same “financial advisors”, eager to become my friend and business partner. It happened at the PE Conference I attended in mid-July in Shanghai. I was there to give one of the keynote speeches. Overall, it was a great experience. The organizers were cordial and professional. The other speakers and panel-members were first-class. 

But, I occasionally felt like a bit of bait dangling on hook. At every break, I was approached by well-dressed and well-spoken people, eager to give me their business cards, and talk shop. It just so happened that the shop they wanted to talk about was how to revive their now-troubled business model of doing these quick and lucrative IPOs for Chinese companies. I quickly, and I hope politely, explained that they were anathema, and in my mind, deserved particularly excruciating forms of punishment for ruining so many otherwise-good Chinese businesses by promoting and profiting from these awful IPO deals. Boiling in oil perhaps? 😉 

Now, sure, these people didn’t have any way of knowing how I felt about what they do. They’ve never seen my blog, or heard me hold forth on the subject. So, I guess they must have found my reaction a little extreme. But, it did put a more human face on this whole problem, which I believe to be the single worst aspect of China’s financial system, that unethical and unprincipled advisors run rampant here, and have succeeded in convincing so many Chinese companies to IPO for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, at grotesque expense with disastrous results.   

To be honest, I was a little surprised at just how nice and professional many of these “financial advisors” at the conference seemed to be. They didn’t conform very well to my stereotype, which admittedly, was formed by a quick meeting with one of these advisors almost two years ago. This was the guy who had tried, and nearly succeeded, to lure a great Chinese company to destruction via a “Form 10 Listing” on the OTCBB. This company later became China First Capital’s first client. 

The advisors I met at the conference were mainly eager to talk about how much they liked and respected CFC’s approach, and how much they had to learn from us. What is it they say about flattery being the food of fools? Anyway, soon after, they usually then started pitching me on some company or other that they were trying to list. One of them explained that they were now trying to get into the business of raising PE capital for Chinese SME. Did I have any tips? 

In this case, my advice was to disclose to these SME their past record of copping fat fees for taking companies public, knowing these clients would likely wither and die after the IPO. 

One thing that did strike me, in talking to these guys, is that they all tended to use the same Chinese phrase to describe their clients: “上市公司”, which I’d translate as “an IPO company”. It’s actually quite apt.  They are in business to arrange IPOs, not generally to raise capital, or act as bankers or trusted long-term advisors. 

We have some similar kinds of organizations in the US, and they often delusionally will call themselves “investment banks”. What they are, more accurately, are IPO bucket shops. In China, they still mainly call themselves “FA”, short for “Financial Advisor”. 

By whatever name, these guys are likely to remain a problem in China for a long time. They will not go out of business just because I hectored them about the damage they’re doing to entrepreneurship in China.  There are too many of them, and too many good SME for them to prey upon. They are like a well-oiled machine for mangling good Chinese companies.



Shenzhen’s New Small-Cap Stock Market — A Faster Path to IPO. Not Always a Smarter Path

July 23rd, 2009 No comments

lichi painting from blog post by China First Capital

One of the main themes of the PE conference I attended last week in Shanghai was the launch of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange’s new Growth Enterprise Market “GEM”, for smaller-cap, mainly high-tech companies.

It’s been a long time in the planning – since at least 1999. In March 2008, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, tried to kickstart the process and announced plans to open soon this second market in Shenzhen. Events then intruded – the credit crisis struck, financial markets tanked, and so plans for China’s GEM went into limbo.

Things are now back on track. Trading is likely to begin in October. At the conference, most of the speakers focused on hows and whys the GEM would open new opportunities for smaller companies to raise money from China’s capital market.

Overall, it’s a development I applaud. Private companies in China are often starved of growth capital, and the GEM will mean more of the country’s capital gets allocated to these businesses.

There is one aspect, however, of the GEM that I personally find a little less positive. It’s a small quibble, but my concern is that the opening of the GEM will lead still more Chinese companies to divert time and resources away from building their profits and market share and instead devote energy and cash towards going public. The smaller the company, the more potentially harmful this diversion of attention can be.

China is, to use a military analogy, a “target-rich environment”. Companies often have more opportunities than they have time or resources. This is the product of an economy growing very strongly (8% this year) and modernizing at lightning speed. Large companies can also suffer when they shift focus from gaining customers to gaining a public listing. But, they will usually operate in an established market with established customers. This gives them more of a cushion.

Smaller, high-tech companies don’t have as much leeway. For these companies (last year’s revenues under $5o million) the risk is that the time-consuming and expensive process of planning an IPO on GEM will severely impact current operations, causing it to miss chances to expand, and so lose out to better-focused competitors.

In other words, there’s a trade-off here that tends to get overlooked in all the excitement about the opening of this new stock market in China. The trade-off is between focusing on capital-raising and focusing on building your business.

In my experience, private Chinese companies are already often a little too fixated on an IPO. It’s the main reason so many have made the poor, and often fatal, choice to go public on the American OTCBB. The GEM, I fear, will add fuel to this fire. Often, the best choice for a fast-growing private Chinese company will be to ignore the many pitches they’ll hear from advisors to IPO, and hunker down by focusing on their business for the next year or two.

Yes, being a boot-strapped company is tough. There’s never enough cash around. I know this at first-hand, since along with running China First Capital, I’m also CEO of a boot-strapped security software company in California, Awareness Technologies. Our growth opportunities far exceed our ability to finance them. So, I can understand why the thought of raising an “easy” $5 million – $15 million by going public on the GEM is very attractive to any Chinese boss running a similar cash-short and opportunity-rich company.

But, capital always has a cost. In this case, the main costs will be both the cash paid to advisors and regulators, along with the indirect cost of being a beat slower to seize available opportunities to grow. In China at the moment, any slowness is not just a problem. It can be life-threatening. Every business here operates in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

Of course, any company that can raise money by going public on the GEM will eventually enjoy a big advantage over competitors. It will have the cash and the stronger balance sheet to finance growth. But, the IPO process in China remains far slower than in the US or Hong Kong. A company planning and funding its GEM IPO now, may need to wait two years or more to get all necessary approvals and so finally raise that money with an IPO. Meantime, competitors are, as Americans like to say, eating this company’s lunch.

It’s a discussion we often have with SME bosses – how to time optimally an IPO. A rule of thumb with IPOs is: “small is not beautiful.” Going public on the strength of still limited earnings and revenues will likely result in a small market cap. This can adversely affect share price performance, and so limit the company’s ability to raise additional equity capital. To avoid this trap, it’s often going to be better to wait. Let competitors get bogged down in IPO planning. You can then grow at their expense.

In one way, though, the establishment of the GEM market is an unqualified triumph. It sends the signal far and wide that private SME companies will play an ever larger role in fueling the growth of China’s economy.

 

 

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